The most important books in my life have arrived by providence. As a teenager, I stumbled upon one enormous literary discovery after another. My father gifted me his worn paperback editions of Galway Kinnell and James Wright when I was just fourteen; at sixteen, I found a coffee-stained copy of Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) abandoned on a table at a local café. The work of American short story writer Andre Dubus arrived in a similarly serendipitous way.
During the bitterly cold February of my twenty-third year, I made a Sunday pilgrimage to an independent bookstore. It was a bland store—utilitarian metal bookshelves, unremarkable carpeting, humming fluorescent lights—but I could always count on the staff's recommendations. I had never heard of Dubus before, and it would be years of mispronunciation before I learned that his last name rhymes with "abuse," like "duh-byoos." But that day, Dancing After Hours (Knopf, 1996) leapt out at me.
I plucked the book from the shelf. On the back cover, comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver caught my eye, as did mentions of the obsessions I would soon come to understand were hallmarks of Dubus's work: tenderness, hurt, courage, redemption. I opened the paperback and submitted it to a test I would later discover Dubus himself was fond of: I read the opening lines of a few stories. By the end of the first line of "The Timing of Sin," I was ready to plunk down my twelve dollars: "On a Thursday night in early autumn she nearly committed adultery, was within minutes of consummating it, or within touches, kisses; it was difficult to measure by time or by her mouth and tongue and hands, or by his."
Over the next week, I carefully read each story in Dancing After Hours; over the following weeks, I reread the stories. And it wasn't long before I had collected and read everything Dubus had written. I quickly discovered that his work was not easy; the stories were fraught with hard moments of loneliness, heartache, violence, adultery, rape, murder, and abortion. "I think honest writers write about what bothers them," Dubus once said of his choice of subject matter.
Though some have found his narratives too dark or brooding, I was startled and impressed by the richness of the characters Dubus sketched. He populated his stories with complex characters that are neither all good nor all evil, neither all right nor all wrong—but none of them seemed completely beyond the possibility of redemption. This touch of kindheartedness amazed me. As I read, his characters became a part of my consciousness and my understanding of humanity: a young boy haunted by the urge to masturbate ("If They Knew Yvonne"); a young girl struggling with her weight ("The Fat Girl"); a wife caught in the moment of accepting and dealing with the consequences of her failed marriage ("Adultery"); a father hypnotized by the false hope promised by revenge ("Killings"); and another father, this one divorced, torn between doing what is "right" and protecting his daughter ("A Father's Story"). With a delicate touch that many writers lack, Dubus could skim the surface of sentimentality even as he graced his characters with quiet dignity.
I learned later that like so many of his inscrutable yet familiar characters, Dubus himself was a complex man. A thrice-divorced devout Catholic who fathered six children—including Andre Dubus III, the author of House of Sand and Fog (Norton, 1999)—by two women, Dubus was a barrel-chested ex-marine who liked a stiff drink and the occasional bar fight, but had a propensity to cry during schmaltzy movies. He could be distracted and distant at times, but many describe him as one of the most tender, sentimental people they've ever known.
I understand now that his writing has been a twofold gift in my life. As a writer, the short stories taught me about compression and point of view, and as a human being they gave me a deeper understanding of empathy and compassion.
Perhaps more than any other American writer of his generation, Andre Dubus was fiercely devoted to the short story. "I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live," Dubus once wrote. "They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice."
While his stories would eventually earn him fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Dubus struggled to find a foothold in a publishing world dominated by novels. His devotion to the short story kept him off the best-seller list, and even today Dubus remains largely unknown to the general public, praised instead as a "writer's writer." New readers are likely to have discovered Dubus by way of In the Bedroom and We Don't Live Here Anymore, two award-winning films adapted from his stories. Yet Dubus has influenced scores of today's short story practitioners, including Chris Offutt, Robert Olmstead, Tobias Wolff, and Monica Wood, and is greatly admired by E. L. Doctorow, John Irving, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and John Updike.
Show MoreThe Fat Girl
Her name was Louise. Once when she was sixteen a boy kissed her at a barbacue; he was drunk and he jammed his tongue into her mouth and ran his hands up and down her hips. Her father kissed her often. He was thin and kind and she could see in his eyes when he looked at her the lights of love and pity. It started when Louise was nine. You must start watching what you eat, her mother would say. I can see you have my metabolism. Louise also had her mother’s pale blond hair. Her mother was slim and pretty, carried herself erectly, and ate very little. The two of them would eat bare lunches, while her older brother ate sandwiches and potato chips, and then her mother would sit smoking while Louise eyed the bread box,…show more content…
In college she would have two lovers and then several more during the six years she spent in Boston before marrying a middle-aged editor who had two sons in their early teens, who drank too much, who was tenderly, boyishly grateful for her love, and whose wife had been killed while rock-climbing in New Hampshire with her lover. She would not think of Louise either, except in an earlier time, when lovers were still new to her and, sometimes at night, lying in a man’s arms, she would tell how in high school no one dated her, she had been thin and plain (she would still believe that: that she had been plain; it had never been true) and so had been forced into the weekend and night-time company of a neurotic smart girl and a shy fat girl. She would say this with self-pity exaggerated by Scotch and her need to be more deeply loved by the man who held her. She never eats, Joan and Marjorie said of Louise. They ate lunch with her at school, watched her refusing potatoes, ravioli, fried fish. Sometimes she got through the cafeteria line with only a salad. That is how they would remember her: a girl whose hapless body was destined to be fat. No one saw the sandwiches she made and took to her room when she came home from school. No one saw the store of Milky Ways, Butterfingers, Almond Joys, and Hersheys far back on her closet shelf, behind the stuffed animals of her childhood. She was not a hypocrite. When she was out of the